Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig – Book Review

An emotional rollercoaster of a novel about the catastrophic consequences of well-intended pity, this was a somewhat exhausting read but a rich and gripping one too.

Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer and one of the most celebrated popular authors of the 1920s and 30s, is mostly known for his novellas, of which I read a couple back in my teens. Many years later, I remember them not so much for their plots of characters, but mostly for the way they made me feel: as if I just climbed out of an emotional tumble dryer. I was very curious to check out Zweig’s only full-length novel, and see if his baroque emotional intensity would still captivate me as an adult.

And then there was the novel’s terse, intriguing title. I find it hard to articulate the exact difference between compassion and pity, but I’ve always felt like there was some distasteful quality about the latter, a whiff of condescension and superiority perhaps. Still, what could be so dangerous about the very human feelings of sadness and sympathy felt for another’s suffering or misfortune?

The novel is set in the twilight years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, just before the outbreak of World War I, and tells the story of Anton Hofmiller, a young cavalry lieutenant stationed in a nondescript garrison town close to the Hungarian border. His troubles begin with a single unfortunate gaffe, made during the visit to the house of Herr von Kekesfalva, the wealthiest man in the district. Trying to be a gentleman, Hofmiller asks his host’s daughter, Edith, to dance. To his horror, she bursts into tears: it turns out that Edith has lost the use of her legs, and can just barely move around with the aid of crutches. Utterly mortified, the young man makes the excruciating situation worse by fleeing the house.

The next morning, Hofmiller is eager to make amends, and eventually becomes a fixture at the Kekesfalva household, where everyone is grateful to him for brightening Edith’s spirits. For his own part, having spent years in the emotionally austere, ultra-masculine environment of the military, Hofmiller is moved profoundly by this new, powerful emotion of pity towards the crippled girl, and finds himself enjoying the female company of Edith and her beautiful cousin Ilona. He obliges himself to visit Edith evening after evening, and is delighted to see the positive effect his presence has on her.

Even in the early days, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Edith’s resentment of her condition on one hand and her pampered upbringing on the other make her prone to explosive mood swings, and Hofmiller has to be constantly aware of not crossing the line where sympathy becomes infuriating rather than soothing. Furthermore, he worries about how his visits might be construed by the rest of the town and his army comrades especially – might he be seen as a shameless sponger? Right away, there’s a tension between his two lives that eventually turns out to be disastrous.

Little by little, Hofmiller gets entangled into a complex web that involves not only Edith but also her father, who is obsessed with finding a cure for his daughter. What began as a pleasant diversion from the drudgery of army life turns into a psychological nightmare that our hero is helpless to extricate himself from. Over and over, Hofmiller is faced with a horrible dilemma: should he tell the brutal unadorned truth, or spare another person’s feelings and buy some temporary breathing space?

Over and over, his feelings of pity win, but stakes get raised higher as a result, never more so when Hofmiller realises that Edith’s feelings towards him run deeper than a platonic friendship. By the end of it all, the novel ratchets up tension to an unbearable degree, as it sweeps the reader along towards the inevitable tragic conclusion. I suspect that this haunting story would make for a cracking book club discussion, as it raises so many questions and no character is entirely blameless. To what degree is anyone responsible for another person’s emotional well-being? Is there always a kernel of selfishness at the heart of pity? Is it better to tell the cruel truth, or the comforting lie?

Just as I remembered, Zweig’s writing conjures up a world of heightened emotions, where moments of pure peace and happiness are deceiving and never last for long, and smallest things can be a matter of life and death. All this high melodrama would probably be hard to take in, if not for Zweig’s astute understanding of the human weakness and the sharp attention he pays to his characters’ inner workings. It also probably goes down easier when the story is told from the perspective of a young character whose impulsiveness, acute sense of honour and overly vivid imagination takes him from the top of the world to the bottom of despair in a flash.

Though the novel was published in 1939, there’s very little modern sensibility about its language and it probably has much more in common with the classic 19th century literature. I haven’t read anything in this style for a while, and I’ll admit it took me some time to get used to Zweig’s flowery turn of phrase and what could be unkindly described as overwriting. When Zweig introduces an important side character, you can be sure he’ll spend a page or two sketching them out. There’s also a sort of novella-inside-the-novel, with a lengthy side story of how Edith’s father came to acquire his wealth. On one hand it’s not exactly out of place, as it provides a different angle on the themes of love and pity, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that I might end up skipping it on a re-read.

There’s a wonderful sense of time and place and the long-gone era: the book brings to life the small Austrian town, the daily life in the Austro-Hungarian army, the magnificent trappings of the rich (the description of the feast at Kekesfalvas’ almost made me salivate). One chapter is devoted to a genuinely happy and carefree day spent in the countryside with a spontaneous visit to a local wedding, a delightful and welcome break from all the tension and drama that reminded me of Maupassant and his loving descriptions of rural France.

In the end novella might still be Zweig’s true form, but despite a few misgivings Beware of Pity is a powerful and memorable novel by an old flame that I’d like to get re-acquainted with again.

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